Post-mortem Photography in the Victorian Age: When Life is a Fiction.

Victorian-era post-mortem photographs are a strange mix of charm, mystery, and the macabre, offering a way to preserve the memory of a deceased person. This is, in fact, a photographic practice that developed in the Victorian era and fell into disuse around the 1940s.

Before the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, the only way to pass on one’s image was to have a portrait made, and many people could not afford it because of the high cost. The first paintings depicting, for example, children who died at an early age, appeared between the 16th and 17th centuries in Northern Europe (England) and Spain. To be portrayed by a painter entailed very high costs, so post-mortem portraits became a prerogative of the wealthier classes or even of the artists themselves. The first portraits in photos of the Victorian era, moreover, did not differ much in aesthetics to the portraits in painting: clothing, poses, attitude were the same

Post-mortem photographs were particularly in vogue in the Victorian era, where the infant mortality rate was very high and post-mortem photographs were often the only photos that parents had of their children. This aspect would explain why the subjects are mostly portrayed as if they were still alive; with their eyes open, or so painted, or even engaged in small daily activities.

There were photographic studios that based almost their entire business on this, and widely advertised their ability to achieve amazing results in portraying the dead. And from what you’ll see, they weren’t wrong: some of the photos could really mislead you: just by small details you can determine that they are indeed post-mortem photos.

In later years, corpses began to be depicted as if they were alive, sitting on chairs and with their eyes open; children, on the other hand, are often shown resting on a couch or in a cradle, sometimes with a favorite toy or pet. Very young children were often photographed in their mother’s arms. The effect of life was sometimes enhanced by opening the eyes or painting them on the eyelids, and the cheeks of the corpse were sometimes painted pink afterwards.

In some cases, photographers even used glue to keep bodies in more “natural” and less abandoned positions, or to have people hold objects (hats, bags, books) as if they were still alive.

Later post-mortem photos were limited only to showing the subject in a coffin, leaving out the realistic component of the photo.

This kind of photography is still practiced in some regions of the world, such as Eastern Europe, and more generally among the faithful of Eastern European churches are widespread photos of saints in their coffins. Even today in cemeteries it is possible to see this kind of photos: they generally depict children who died a few days after giving birth.

Andres Serrano. The corpse as a work of art.

If it was perfectly plausible in the 19th century to keep photographs of deceased loved ones, the same cannot be said for today. One artist who has measured himself against the relationship between art and death is Andres Serrano. Of Honduran and Afro-Cuban descent, he studied art at the Brooklyn Museum and Art School from 1967 to 1969. Known for his representations at the limits of morality, Serrano often deals with religion, death, corporality in all its definitions

The Morgue, photographed by Andres Serrano

In fact, the artist is known for his use of bodily fluids such as blood, urine and semen, elements that come into contact with sculpture and photography, Serrano’s main means of communication. In the famous series The morgue of 1992, the images immortalise the crude details of a body, devoid of any personal details, abandoned by its vital essence, photographs taken of the bodies of adults and children where there is no censorship or taboo, where only the cause of death is indicated.

Burn victim, Photographed by Andres Serrano
Broken bottle murder, photographed by Andres Serrano

Centuries have passed since Leonardo and Michelangelo studied human cadavers to derive the anatomical lessons that would make their works famous, and even more time has passed since the ancient Egyptians worked on corpses to make the body eternal. If even in ancient times cadavers were considered and even admired by artists, why is contemporary society surprised or scandalised if the corpse continues to be the focus of interest of some artistic geniuses?

Giovanni Troìa

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